Monday, December 8, 2014

The CVG Podcast and Rhythm & Blues Revue - Episode #010: Boogie Choosin'!

The ladies are all about the monocle...

Episode Ten of The Chippewa Valley Geek Podcast and Rhythm & Blues Revue is complete and can be found here or on iTunes and Stitcher!

We're back from an accidental hiatus, and we're talking about freewill and fate in our lives and in our games!

0:00:00  Intros
0:02:02  The Up Front: On choosing to choose poorly
0:07:05  The Interview:  Author and illustrator Matt Youngmark tells us about the Choose-o-matic Book Series, vouches for the creative influence of Jean-Claude Van Damme, and takes on the Geek-del Test!
0:30:24  Payin' some bills

0:34:54  The Roundtable:  Wherein Mike and Donny fulfill their destiny by defending the fantasy that they have some control over their sad, pathetic lives.  Also, we discover a long lost classic of geek literature together!
1:52:25  A rebuttal of sorts

1:53:42  A non-calendar and a long-distance dedication
1:54:46  Outro & Credits
1:56:31  Bonus Track:    CN Woman Boogie!

What do you want from me?  I've been listening to an awful lot of John Lee Hooker lately...

Hey, how about some show notes?

Check out Matt Youngmark and the Choose-o-matic book series!
Here's a great place to get Time Travel Dinosaur!


Choose Your Own Adventure!

Neil Patrick Harris:  Choose Your Own Autobiography!

Garycon!  Where the grognards gather...

"Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead", by Tom Stoppard!

5th Edition gives you a do-over!

The Geek's twitter!

Author and illustrator Matt Youngmark!

The Choose-o-matic book series!
Zombiepocalypse Now!
Thrusts of Justice!
Time-Travel Dinosaur!

Dinosaur Comics by Ryan North!

Free RPG Day!

The Conspiracy Friends webcomic!

Freewill, on Amazon!

Support the ASPCPC!

Experiments on the neuroscience of freewill!

LaPlace's Demon!

Shaun of the Dead!

The Casca series!

Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, the source of the concept of "psychohistory"!

The "Kobiyashi Maru" - a supposedly no-win scenario, and all the folks who beat it!

I6 - Ravenloft!  The original module!

Hollywood's always gotta do a sequel...  so,
I10 - Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill!

The World of Darkness!  Sorry, Jack

Star Wars and Farsight!

The Reluctant Hero!

The Dungeons and Dragons kids better feckin' knock it off...

The Hero's Journey!

John Carter of Mars was much better than you probably think!

So were the books!

Pick your Bond!

Liam Neeson has a very specific set of skills!

The Fighting Fantasy series!

Because Serenity!

Serenity now!

Hey kids, it's Summer Glau!

Area 51!

Dr. Nera Vivaldi is an actual thing...

Captain Kirk's cannon!  Again.

You have died of dysentery.  Naturally.

"The Grand Design" by Stephen Hawking

This episode is dedicated to the memory of R. A. Montgomery!

The Geek's main Amazon link!

Remember you can get your own copies of the bonus tracks out at Bandcamp!

PC Stinger:  Matt Youngmark's Calavert of the Great Northern Bear Tribe

The backing sound effects used in this episode included:

-  "Melancholic Interpretation in G#", obtained via via a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial license.  The original file can be found here.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Battlegame Book Series #5 of 20: World War II (Vol. 4) – Beach-head

Narration from a Scottish redhead...
When I was a little boy I had one of the five volumes in the Usborne Battlegame Book series by Andrew McNeil. It was called Fighting Ships (#5) and it was published in the UK in 1975.  It was chock full of pictures and helpful information on the inside, and contained four complete wargames (with pieces, rules and gameboards in the book) that could help your imagination travel anywhere in time and space. This year, I decided to (re)collect and (re)play the entire series. And we've been playing ever since...


So we recently had a board game night come to an abrupt and ignominious end some weeks ago, when Dastardly Donny inadvertently (or so we are led to believe) failed to understand the simple process of road movement in Conquest of the Empire, and subsequently fell for the ever-classic "Moroccan End-Around" strategy, being overrun by a sudden invasion of Egyptians swarming over the straits of Gibraltar, whilst I performed a crucial role in distracting his legions by letting them repeatedly pummel the crap out of me in Dalmatia.  Of course the guidelines and ramifications for player elimination in COTE are far more brutal than in Axis and Allies or any of the other MB wargame brethren, so this master stroke essentially single-handedly gave the game's victory to our hapless pharoah, Notorious Nick.  (I would have alerted Donny to his impending doom of course, were it not for the fact that Nick's gambit was my last remaining hope of fulfilling my ambitious strategy of "not coming in last".)  In any event, we found ourselves suddenly abruptly gameless at far too early an hour on a recent saturday eve.

Donny used this opportunity of course to slip off into the night to meet his Snuffelupagus-like "Magic" friends (which is why my suspicions to this day still linger as to the witting or unwitting nature of his pwning that night).  Left with the time and opportunity though, Nick and I chose it as a prime time to try on one of the Battlegames and see what came of it.  As this was sometime in early June, we went straight to the WWII book and delved into a selection called Beach-head.
Beach-head's starting positions
Now on one level, Beach-head is essentially the prerequisite D-Day simulation you would expect a WWII-oriented gamebook to cover.  On a deeper level though, its agenda ultimately comes off as something entirely different. The game ties into a discussion of "funny" tanks and other engineering equipment in the book, and game play seems oriented to teach the young gamer about the various obstacles Allied troops faced and the tools they used to overcome them.

Nick commands his assault
The scene is Sword Beach on June 6, 1944.  The German player (me here) defends, naturally, and begins setup by placing the heavy artillery in its designated space and then by determining which of the three possible gun emplacement positions will host the other two smaller anti-tank artillery units.  I chose to place them to the left, reasoning that the two positions were closer together and, with the heavy piece on the far right, could better support each other through overlapping fire zones and lanes of approach. 

All other defending units must enter the board two at a time down the road from the village behind the beachhead, creating scramble as the game goes on for the German player to get his units in place to properly throw up a defensive screen.  But although minimal units begin play on the board, the beach and the uplands are already covered with all nature of obstacles and seige defenses designed to thwart the Allied advance:  minefields, barbed wire, ditches, concrete walls, "dragon's teeth" tank traps, and so on.

Once the artillery is placed, the Allies land their first wave of invaders and the opening salvoes commence.  In addition to bombardment from an offshore cruiser, the Allied player places four units anywhere along the first row of squares on top of the beach each turn.  The object itself is simple enough in theory.  The Allies advance onto the board and have 12 game turns to get two tank units and two infantry to any of the squares on the far inland side of the board.
The Limeys breach the Sea Wall

Of course, while it sounds simple, it quickly becomes a logistical nightmare which is designed reward only the most organized of planners.  For each line of beach obstacles the Allies hit, Nick is provided with a specific type of unit to clear it.  The process it usually the same for all.  The "funny" most move onto the obstructed square and remain there one turn.  On the next move, that space is considered "cleared" and any unit may enter and cross it.  (Bridging units are slightly different in that they must remain indefinitely in a river or ditch square to provide access.)  Of course if the vehicle is taken out by German artillery before its task is complete, the square is remains obstructed and a new attempt must be started over next turn, meaning infantry lined up behind which had expected to cross is likely backed up on the beach and exposed to shelling.  This is even further complicated by the fact that most of the "funnies" have no weaponry of their own with which to return fire.On his initial placement, Nick committed hard to an assault on my right flank, reasoning that one heavy artillery piece would be easier to land under than two medium pieces.  He was not entirely wrong in that assumption.

The final casualty pile
Once play began,the first few turns went quickly.  His units crawled slowly up the beach while I rushed units in twos to various places along the defenses as well as possible.  For a while the only units within range of anything were the heavy artllery and the cruiser, so combat was initially light.  I had mild success in taking out some of the "funnies" as they worked, delaying his advance, but not as much as I would have liked.

The board also became a chit-astic nightmare quickly.  While most of the Battlegame series has a fairly limited number of pieces, there is a hell of a lot going on in Beach-head.  Not only were the variety of "funnies" poorly labelled, we also needed to distinguish between those which had already used their special ability.  At least for the types of units where that was relevant.  In addition, we needed to find a way to mark which obstacles on the board had been cleared and were passable and ended up using black white scraps of paper for those.  Ultimately though, part of the logistical nightmare faced by the Allied player in organizing his advance lies in simply remembering what is what on the board and trying to move pieces without knocking four others askew.

Once the ground units got within range of each other, however, the scenario became the meat-grinder which I suspect it was partially designed to be.  Nick successfully steered clear (for the most part) of my anti-tank guns, and managed to take out the heavy artillery with a hit from his cruiser maybe halfway or 2/3 of the way through.  By that time, however, I had enough infantry and armor in place to fight tooth and nail, and, as his infantry and tanks slowly crawled up the beach, they were now under constant barrage.  It took a heavy toll.

Ending Positions, Turn 12
I used cover provided by the obstacles as effectively as I could manage, keeping myself from being totally overwhelmed by Nick's superior forces, but eventually his advance did start to wear me down, particularly as he overran the large concrete wall constituting the large center defence.  At that point it was easier for him to get units to the front line than myself (dealing with bridges and ditches behind the lines) and it was, I believed, just a matter of time at that point.

The thing is though, time being an explicit victory condition of the game and all, it was enough.  While I have no doubt whatsoever that, given a long enough timeframe, he would likely have steamrolled the meager units I had remaining, the Allies had We both looked at the troop placements at the beginning of the 12th turn and agreed there was no way he would be able to satisfy the victory condition of reaching the inland side of the board with the requisite units that turn.

Here is how 
Beach-head fared in our scoring:

                                        Nick         Brian

Quick to lean           4                  3

A conveniently-included set of stereo instructions
Nick felt the basics of the game were simple to pick up, whereas I felt the varieties of "funnies" were quite tricky to keep straight over the course of the game for both players.  I am still unable to decide how exactly I feel about the insanely arcane firing table.  While I'm appreciative of the added touch of complexity, it's on a level which is entirely out of character for the Battlegame series thus far, and it's one-pager rules paradigm.

Cool factor               3                  3
We both felt the premise was interesting, but Nick felt there was not much depth to the game and ultimately found the experience that much more frustrating after reaching the moment of truth where the Allied player realizes half his units are usless in combat.    I was somewhat less peeved by the whole process, but felt there was still far too much emphasis on making the game educational in regards to the obstacles and their various "funnies" which detracted from the overall cool. 

Replayability            3                 3
We both had mixed emotions about the replayability of Beach-head.  There are only a small variety of approaches and outcomes available to the scenario, but I still have half a hankering to see how it might play out with a different arrangement of starting artillery and the Allies landing on their right or center or across a broad front.

Balance                    4                 4
We felt the game and the forces arrayed against each other were both very balanced.  We both wondered why the victory conditions called for 2 armor and infantry units, and not just 4units of any type.  
The other question to my mind was if 12 turns is a reasonable time frame for an Allied victory at all, or if this limitation unreasonably favors the defender.  The answer to that likely lies in the amount of time spent in the first few turns on "newbie" mistakes, if any, and whether a player having experienced the game already would have had the wherewithal to press inland faster.  But that might just be like asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop.

Overall                     3.375

Some Relevant Pages from Volume 4: World War II

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Monster Mike's Geek Reads: Chronicles of the Black Company

"Darkness wars with darkness as the hard-bitten men of the Black Company take their pay and do what they must. They bury their doubts with their dead.
Then comes the prophecy: The White Rose has been reborn, somewhere, to embody good once more…"


I once boasted to Brian that "I've read pretty much everything."  And he asked me what I thought of The Black Company.

"The what?" I asked. 

"Just read it," he replied.  The word "moron" at the end of this directive was unspoken, but strongly implied.

So, I fired up my Kindle and plunged into The Chronicles of The Black Company, which is really the first three books (The Black CompanyShadows Linger, and The White Rose) of a nine novel series by Glen Cook.
(Ed. note: 10 if you count The Silver Spike.)

Let's start with some basics.  The Black Company is a mercenary force of fighters and wizards for hire in a grimdark fantasy world that has, well, issues.  Centuries before the action starts in these novels, this unnamed world was in the clutches of an extremely powerful wizard known as The Dominator.  The Dominator, his wife - The Lady, and a group of enslaved wizards known as The Ten Who Were Taken ruled the world in a way that many found unseemly.  Naturally, there was a rebellion led by a mythic figure known as The White Rose.  Ultimately, the rebels were victorious and The Dominator, The Lady, and The Taken were all laid to rest in the Barrowlands, not dead but eternally sleeping, their tombs protected by a network of monstrous guardians and powerful spells.  However, our story starts long after something happened.  The Lady and The Taken have reappeared, and have been re-establishing their empire from a stronghold in the North.  Once again, there is a rebellion.  Only this time, there is no White Rose to aid the rebel cause.

The events in all three books are narrated by Croaker, the Black Company's physician and annalist.  In The Black Company, the Company is hired by Soulcatcher, one of The Taken, to fight for The Lady against the rebellion.  But The Taken spend as much time working against one another as they do fighting the rebels on behalf of The Lady, and the Company find themselves used as a cat's paw in these conflicts.  The first book ends with a massive defensive battle around The Lady's stronghold at Charm, wiping out the majority of the forces on both sides of the conflict.

In Shadows Linger, much of the rising action focuses on a Company deserter called Raven and Darling, the deaf-mute child he adopted in the first book.  Raven and a cowardly innkeeper end up in a conspiracy to sell the town of Juniper's dead to the alien residents of a growing black castle.  A company detachment arrives in Juniper and we discover the castle is actually a sorcerous gateway to allow the Dominator to escape from the Barrowlands and rise again.  The Company and The Taken are ultimately able to destroy the black castle and its inhabitants, while Raven learns that Darling is the reincarnation of The White Rose, and flees with her again.  The remnants of the Company ambush the remaining Taken, and leave the service of The Lady to side with the rebels.

The events of The White Rose occur many years afterwards.  Raven is apparently dead, and Darling is the leader of the rebel fragments.  Through a series of historical documents sent to Croaker, we learn how The Lady came to be freed from the Barrowlands, and discover an impending doom:  flooding of a great river threatens to open the barrows, finally releasing The Dominator upon the world again.  The Lady and the rebels are forced into a truce to join forces in order to defeat The Dominator once and for all.

All put together, this trilogy creates an epic tale in a dark setting where there are few good guys, and fewer good choices.  The principal characters are distinct and memorable, and the antics of Goblin and One-Eye, two of the Company's wizards, provide some light relief to the grim atmosphere.   Through the story, Croaker's personal relationship with The Lady, a terrifying sorceress of nearly godlike power, deepens and becomes more complex.  Cook does a fantastic job of pulling the reader into the personal stories of each character.

There was a lot to like and a lot to dislike about The Chronicles of The Black Company.  Let's start with the bad and then see if we can redeem the book with the good.

My main gripe with the book was the author's use of Croaker as the sole narrator.  The reader only sees what Croaker sees, hears what Croaker hears, and knows only a little bit of what Croaker knows.  Throughout the books, Glen Cook steadfastly refuses to give the reader any kind of Gods-eye-view of the world at large.  The reader only knows that the sky is blue or the mountains lie to the east of the plains if Croaker chooses to mention it.  And for the most part, Croaker is not big on explaining any of the world's context to the reader.  This left me feeling very disoriented through most of the first book, and through the first half of the following two novels as new characters and locations were introduced.  Even though I'm a big believer in "show-don't tell" as the best way for an author to describe people and places and events, I think Mr. Cook took this concept to an unfriendly extreme.  Throw me a frickin' bone here, Glen Cook.

This disorientation made the early parts of each novel drag a bit for me.  Though the plots were interesting, the characters were compelling, the action was enjoyable, and the writing was solid, I couldn't really get into the plot of each book until about two-thirds of the way through when I finally figured out what the hell was going on.

But the last parts of those books.  Wow.  Once all the pieces come together, each book finishes with a real punch.  All of the books were hard to pick up for the first couple hundred pages, and impossible to put down for the last hundred.  As soon as I finished the trilogy, I wanted to go back and read it again so I could savor all the richness and nuance of this fantastic world that I missed on the first reading.  In spite of its flaws, I believe that The Chronicles of The Black Company deserves a spot on any fantasy reader's top bookshelf as a significant and groundbreaking contribution to the genre.

Rating this trilogy is difficult.  I give it one star for frustration, and five stars for its ultimate vision.  So I'll split the difference and give it three.  Browsing through the reader reviews on Goodreads, it seems that this series draws a bimodal response from readers in the wild.  People either love it or hate it, and chances are, you will too.

Editor's Afterword:

Hey folks, Brian here.

While, generally, I want Mike's reviews to be able to stand on their own with minimal befuddlement or meddling from my end, I also felt a responsibility to butt my own 2 cents in here (yes, I know), and offer an afterthought to this particular review. 

Glen Cook's Black Company series, and particularly the first of the books, The Black Company, are among my most beloved fantasy novels, and it was something of a foregone conclusion that when we were first discussing the idea of Mike's Geek Reads appearing on the CVG, it was be the first candidate to pop into my head as a recommendation deserving a review.  I myself first read it some 4-5 years ago, and to say that it blew my mind at the time would be a vast understatement.

I generally consider myself to be a pretty intelligent person and an astute reader.  In fact, I'm sure I suffer from that all-too-common geek epidemic of usually believing I'm the smartest person in the room most of the time.  (So far in my experience, Monster Mike is the only geek I've met firsthand who would ever be consistently right in that belief.)  The Black Company, though, crushed that illusion for me utterly from the very first word. 

And I do mean that literally: the very first word. 

"Legate".  I had to look it up.  I can't remember the last time a novel made me go look up a word, let alone a fantasy novel.  I knew right away I was in for one nutty ride (™ Vernon Hardapple).

It was more evident as I read on, these books were clearly far, far smarter than me.  I for one loved that challenge.  I glanced through the reviews on Goodreads for example on MM's recommendation in his review above, and found there a good deal of teeth gnashing about how the narrator never stops to explain the world (as per the first chapter of every Encyclopedia Brown book ever).  The reader is expected to pick it up as he or she goes along as though he or she were already part of the world being describe,d and already had the context to understand the perspective of the Chronicler .  It's a fair criticism and TBC uses this style of narration to a merciless extreme.  There were often chapters I had to stop and go back to re-read entirely because the proverbial penny as to what was really going on in a particular scene only dropped at the very end of what I had just read.  These are not easy books by any stretch of the imagination, and they do make you work for it, on nearly every page.  If you're looking for a bit of light reading, or something on par with the Dragonlance novels level of fantasy (as a random example), you will be frustrated and annoyed by the entire endeavor.  I personally was thrilled and delighted in a way I hadn't been since I got through Nabokov's "Ada ,or Ardor" alive and in one piece.

I loved the strange juxtapositions of this setting -- the grimdark world, where there are no good choices for a ragtag team of "heroes", just trying to get each other through alive, as well the arcane semi-familiarity of the world, the oddly incongruous place names (Charm, Oar, Roses), the unique and fascinating approach to how magic works…  The world under the thrall of the The Lady's legions always seemed so close to being understood, but also tantalizingly just out of reach.

And the description…  Holy cow.  From epic battles that would put the Pelennor Fields to shame (like the rebellion's final assault on the fortress at Charm), to the small scale unit actions peppered throughout the books (which at once deftly encompass both extremes of the brutal and the absurd), one gets the impression this was written by someone who knows what he is talking about.  He's been "in the shit", and that lends a whole level of authenticity to the action and the shorthand characters speak with, which a shlubby geek like myself could watch in awe but never hope to emulate.  One of the blurbs on the back of the omnibus refers to the books as "Vietnam War fiction on peyote" and it's not a moniker I could argue with in the slightest.

In any event, this brief "afterword" has evolved into a length far beyond what I originally intended.  I will wrap up simply by stating the notion I've had on multiple occasions that if Showtime or AMC were looking for a fantasy-oriented serial to convert into a TV show to combat HBO's Game of Thrones domination, they would be hard pressed to pick something more full of awesome than The Chronicles of the Black Company.  But hey, what do I know… I'm no TV executive.  I'm just some poor geek who keeps giving Glen Cook all my money.  *

Gamers!  Be sure to check out the The Black Company - OGL Campaign Setting From Green Ronin's Mythic Vistas series!

*  Seriously though.  I have notes for any network who wants to reach out to me. 
Let's do this.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What's Geekin' Me Now: Penny Dreadful

When I first got wind of Showtime's new series Penny Dreadful, I was vaguely intrigued, but mostly skeptical.  I suspect it was still some sort of lingering hangover from the incredibly painful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, which should have been amazing, if it hadn't been determined to be so goddamned awful instead.  On seeing these new promos, I had a dual sense of both having seen this all drivel before, and also dreading how the "showbiz" would screw up the seemingly golden notion of a Victorian adventure mash-up this time around.  Since that half-hearted 2003 film debacle, the likelihood of ever seeing something approximating the pure joy of reading Alan Moore's brilliant and classic version of the League has seemed more and more improbable.

Ultimately though, I broke down and gave Penny Dreadful a fair try.  And once I started watching, I found it far exceeded my admittedly low expectations.  It's fair to say PD succeeds in nearly every way the LXG movie fails, and ultimately embodies the best approximation I've seen yet of the Savage Worlds / Cthulhu by Gaslight / World of Darkness / Space: 1889 crossover game I've wanted so desperately to play in or run myself someday.

The term grand guignol seems tailor-made to describe a very particular genre of Victorian horror, and the first season of PD more than lives up to this designation.  Through its eight blood-spattered episodes of suspense and intrigue, it consistently dances frighteningly close to the edge of my personal horror tolerance.  It's a subtle line in the sand, but one which, say,American Horror Story gleefully waltzed over a few too many times, resulting in my ultimately walking away entirely from that series, unfinished.  While hard to stomach in certain moments though, PD never quite crosses that line for me, and so  I was still able to appreciate the greater story elements for what they were.  The cinematography and pacing both seemed to complement that brooding, misty aura of dread quite well.

The Victorian mash-up motif which seemed so natural in Moore's writing was fairly butchered in the movie version of LXG.  (Tom Sawyer, wtf?)  The danger inherent in a writer shoe-horning in every famous personage he or she can think of in a project like this is fraught with danger.  In the right hands, it can be a joy to an astute reader to pick apart.  In the wrong ones, it can be like all the worst episodes of Superfriends piled atop each other at once.  ("Eh-neeek-chock!")  PD succeeds where many other would fail though, and each character addition that rings a bell does not seem gratuitously out of place.  As well, I have to admit to always having had a weakness for vampire stories.  And while that trope may be overplayed in television and movies as a whole, PD brings to it a mix of the subtle menace inherent in a Victorian horror along the lines of Dracula, but also combined with the savage terror omnipresent in Salem's Lot, one of my favorite books of all time.  To use a trite and painful pun, PD - at least in its first season - has succeeded in putting together an old-school vampire epic with teeth.

The cast is well chosen, for the most part.  I have never been a big fan of Eva Green, honestly, but as Miss Ives here, her particular brand of creepy allure (which is to say, French) is put to perfect use, and - hate to say it though I do - between PD and the last Sin City film, I find her growing on me immensely.  I'm encouraged to go rent 300: Rise of an Empire now as soon as I can manage it.  Josh Hartnett does a great job in his role as the American gunslinger, Ethan Chandler.  While he does add a needed relatability and/or earthiness to the series, his presence never seems out of place or gratuitously colonial for the sake of contrast alone.  In my opinion, though, Timothy Dalton is the true jewel of this cast.  As Sir Malcom Murray, it is a joy to see him finally inhabiting a role full of the morally-ambiguous gravitas I feel like I've always known he was capable of, but am hard pressed to think of an actual example of from his past career.  The only real weak link in the cast, really, is Billie Piper's atrociously accented hooker-with-a-heart-of-TB Brona Croft.  I have heard and produced some horrible Irish accents in my years, but her brogue is like a Belfast version of an Irish Spring commercial.  Which is, trust me, every bit as horrible as it sounds, making it sadly impossible to properly judge anything else in her performance.  I have a feeling her career will do just fine in any event.

Beyond these, the remainder of the supporting cast does an admirable job of bringing the creepy and bringing the dread.  (David Warner's all too brief appearance as Dr. Van Helsing is especially welcome, as I've been a huge fan of seeing him turn up in things ever since Time Bandits.)  In eight short hours, I have been won over and gone from cautious ambivalence to eagerly anticipating a repeat viewing.  I can't wait to see what the creators come back with in Season Two.